It “triggered a lightbulb moment for a lot of people.”
It’s a cold, hard truth: alternatives to plastic straws are annoying. Metal straws get gross if you forget to regularly clean them, while paper ones quickly get soggy.
But there’s a reason why we deal with less-convenient straw alternatives: like all other single-use plastics, plastic straws are undeniably terrible for the environment and the organisms in it. And though the fervor behind the “Save the Turtles“-heavy anti-plastic straw movement that gained steam back in the 2010s has died down, the lasting impacts of it, as Harvin Bhathal writes for Grist, mark a rare and actually meaningful moment for the global anti-plastic movement — and considering the very depressing moment in Earth and human history that we’re in, it’s worth reflecting on the movement’s successes.
Anti-plastic straw messaging “triggered a lightbulb moment for a lot of people,” Jackie Nuñez, advocacy and engagement manager for the DC-based nonprofit Plastic Pollution Coalition and founder of coalition-led Last Plastic Straw Movement, told Grist. “It ended up becoming a thing I call a gateway issue.”
Basically, Bhathal argues, the movement led to the widespread limiting of a number of single-use plastics; not just plastic straws, but throw-away cups, containers, and various types of plastic packaging. And most importantly, the trendy movement normalized the absence of some plastics. That’s nothing to bat an eye at — it’s incredibly difficult to drive mass behavioral shifts, especially when corporate interests don’t align.
“Our brains favor habits because they conserve energy,” Leslie Davenport, a climate psychology educator and consultant, told Grist. “So if we are going against the current — a BYO straw for example — it’s hard for most people to do so unless highly motivated.”
It’s also true that an ever-growing number of plastic straw bans are now in effect, in a number of US cities and states, as well as abroad. There have also been some notable efforts on the corporate level: back in 2020, for example, Starbucks ditched plastic straws in favor of sippy lids.
Now, to be clear, Starbucks is no environmental hero, and to laud it too heavily for abandoning one type of single-use plastic would be nothing short of greenwashing. Again: all of it’s bad, and Americans — to put the blame where it’s due — have a lot more habit-changing to do.
Still, if incremental, the anti-plastic straw campaigns did cause tangible change. It’s small, sure. But it’s something, and hopefully, future anti-plastic campaigns will continue to push the needle.
More on plastics: The Ocean’s Plastic Pollution Has Spiked to “Unprecedented” Levels